Something that can truly kill a novel is flat or cliché characters. Sure, your plot may be riveting, and your settings may be creative, but if your characters are boring, your readers are not going to connect with them— or your story.
Yet feeling stuck when writing fictional characters is an issue that has plagued even the most brilliant of writers. If you’re trying to flesh out and spruce up your fictional characters, here are three exercises that can help:
Exercise #1: Write What You Know
Do you have friends, family, or people in your life? I’m sure you do. What are some interesting traits about them? Make three lists. In one, write down the names of the most interesting people in your life. In the second list, write down the physical traits each of these people have. A prominent mole? A strange hairstyle? A favorite color of lipstick?
In the third list, write down the characteristics these people exhibit. Do they have any habits? Any odd ticks or compulsive behaviors? What are their favorite foods, activities, etc.? Make this list as comprehensive as possible.
Now mix and match! You’ve got a list of people of various ages and genders, a list of physical descriptions, and a list of behavioral traits. Pulling even just one of these things and using it for a fictional character will help round out your character and give it more depth.
Exercise #2: Learn From Brilliant Writers
Is there a descriptive character passage from a novel that really stood out for you? Retype the passage, but replace the descriptive words with your own. Remember, this is just an exercise— plagiarism is never okay.
“Mercy on us, what a violent attack,” replied the prince, as he came forward in his embroidered court uniform with silk stockings and buckled shoes. He wore orders on his breast and an expression of serenity on his flat face. . .”
(from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy)
“God help us, our country,” said the jester, stepping into the gallery, tipping his feathered hat at Miss Pavlovia and bowing. She couldn’t help but notice the withered state of his feathers, not to mention the hole burned in the top of his hat, the polished dome of his head shining through reminding her of looking through a telescope with a frayed eyepiece at the battered surface of a distant, inhospitable planet.”
Exercise #3: Use Your Other Characters
The characters in your novel can help each other out. Rather than attempting to describe each character through narrative, utilize dialogue and character thought. Allow your characters to reveal traits about one another. Not only will you be rounding the character that is being described, but you’ll also be rounding the character that is doing the describing.
“Adrianne nervously bit her lip.”
“Damien loved his girlfriend, Adrianne, but he hated how she always bit her lip when she was nervous.”